They say politics makes strange bedfellows, but if you were to hear that wealthy businesspeople have taken up with conservative Christians, you probably wouldn’t be too surprised — just think of Hobby Lobby. Has it always been thus? Not according to Kevin Kruse, Princeton historian and author of One Nation Under God: How Corporate America Invented Christian America. Per Kruse, the cozy relationship is more recent than many of us might think.
After all, it wasn’t until 1954 — over 175 years after our nation’s founding — that “under God” was added to the Pledge of Allegiance. Two years later, “In God We Trust” became the official American motto. This move toward national religiosity wasn’t, as somehave assumed, borne entirely out of a response to the godless Communists. Kruse’s book argues that the notion of a Christian America — a country not just comprising Christians but fundamentally Christian in its structure, nature, and history — was cobbled together in the 1930s and ’40s by a group of businessmen and ministers who needed each other to unite against a common enemy: FDR and the New Deal.
The Great Depression saw the revival of public interest in the Social Gospel — the idea that Christianity ought to be more concerned with the common good than individual salvation. Businessmen like J. Howard Pew (of Sun Oil) and Harvey Firestone didn’t like the emphasis on what they saw as “collectivism,” so they decided they needed to partner with a group of likeminded individuals who would help them advance their capitalistic agenda. Who to turn to?
Reverend James Fifield was especially beloved by his flock — First Congregational Church in Los Angeles — and was the free enterprise-loving clergy that Pew, Firestone, and their cohort needed. Through leaning on an organization called Spiritual Mobilization, Fifield and these wealthy corporate leaders helped ministers to see how the domestic support of FDR’s New Deal, which Fifield and others saw as creeping progressivism, was more than just a political nuisance — it was a spiritual threat. Their fear was the emphasis on collectivism, which religious leaders argued diminished the importance of the individual as presented in the gospel of Jesus Christ, which they saw as elevating personal salvation above communal identity.